Of all the multicultural crossover hits of 2019, Burna Boy may have traveled farthest.
The 28-year-old Nigerian singer-songwriter, born Damini Ogulu, plays a misty, soulful Afrobeat sound — a genre that grew from the country’s own ’70s spin on American funk and rock, and now pulls from hip-hop and Jamaican club styles as well. He parlayed huge success in his home country into a major-label deal with Atlantic and collaborations with a dizzying range of guests: Fall Out Boy, Future, YG and Jorja Smith. Diplo and Skillex have backed him on production duties, and Drake sampled him (despite a crediting dispute) on his mixtape “More Life.”
None of them needed to be there to validate Burna Boy’s achievement on “African Giant,” his 2019 breakthrough that updates the sprawling rock and electronics of Nigerian acts like Fela Kuti and William Onyeabor into the beat-driven present. His songs mix complex, hard-knuckled percussion with romantic desert blues, dancehall synth pads and digital vocal tweaks from modern R&B. But Burna Boy, who lives between London, L.A. and Nigeria, is much more than a welcome discovery from global streaming culture — he’s a live performer worthy of such an audacious album title.
At the Wiltern on Thursday, his set reaffirmed a cutting-edge truth with a thousand-year history: African music sees the future, wherever it goes.
Burna Boy isn’t the first of this wave of Nigerian stars making huge inroads in the streaming era. Wizkid is a favored Drake collaborator (that’s him on “One Dance”), and Davido has sent a pair of songs onto U.S. R&B/Hip-Hop airplay charts. Mr Eazi has signed to Diplo’s Mad Decent label, and Warner Music has a new U.S. distribution deal with the Nigerian label Chocolate City.
But to judge by Thursday’s set, Burna has potential to run it up the charts on his own terms. The leonine vocalist, decked in dapper black and gold, swung between rapping, singing and bandleading, climbing atop the drum kit at big moments. The 2,300-capacity Wiltern was packed and sweltering, with L.A.’s African diaspora out in full regalia. The scene spilled onto the street, as the buzzy Cameroonian food truck African Chop served roasted mackerel and jollof rice to sweaty guests after the set.
That was kind of telling: “African Giant,” for all its Atlantic Records backing and a melange of American and U.K. guests, never dilutes its sound to cater to Anglo audiences, or even to the hip-hop and R&B scenes that are dabbling in Afro-pop right now. Burna Boy’s music is savvy and modern but undistracted by obvious crossover moves. He grew up loving American hip-hop and R&B but bends stars like YG and Future to his world.
That world is an inviting Afrofuturism, informed by familial connections to Kuti (his grandfather managed the Afro-funk titan), and the contemporary sensibilities that won him best international act at this year’s BET Awards. There, his mom accepted his trophy with a rousing speech that emphasized those connections: “Remember that you were Africans before you were anything else.”
At the Wiltern, fans needed no reminder of that. Over charming animated backgrounds that saw Burna driving through space with a weed-smoking alien sitting shotgun, he ran through a catalog that’s already vast, even if many Americans are just now finding it. Cuts like “On the Low” refracted the stutter-step rhythms and melancholy croons that Drake took up the charts, and showed how they fit in their original context.
Many of his singles try to make sense of Nigeria’s tumult since its 1960 independence, chastising Nigeria’s gaudy billionaires and cycles of poverty. “Killin Dem” is a steely street tune, and its clamorous, intricate beat knocked hard and hypnotized at once. But he’s also a fine balladeer: “Pull Up” is a tender, splendidly written R&B tune that puts Nigerian blues guitar into a whole new, beautifully appointed setting.
Burna’s no ultra-traditionalist — his music is as informed by Jamaican dancehall, U.K. hip-hop (note his fine hooks from the British rapper Dave’s “Location”) and brash Nollywood gangster imagery as it is by Fela’s exultant jams. But his take on Nigerian music refuses to be put in any geographic or cultural box (or a font size, as he bemoaned over his low billing at Coachella this year).
The set wasn’t without hiccups. A half-dozen times, Burna and his seven-piece band — guitars, keys, horns and backing vocalists — had to start songs over, to the point that it became kind of a running gag with fans, who cheered him on anyway.
But anyone walking out of the Wiltern Thursday night did so with clear sight of a new star, for whom Afrobeat is a strain of DNA that informs so much modern music and remakes genres as it travels.